Sen. Sessions Twists the Facts on Missile Defense and the Words of ACA Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann

By Daryl G. Kimball

In their zeal to push a treaty-killing amendment offered by Sen. John McCain to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, several Republican Senators are twisting facts, ignoring history, and defying the advice of the U.S. military.

Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and John Barrasso (R.-Idaho) have filed an amendment that would strike the language in the preamble to the treaty “Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties,”.

Sens. Lugar (R.-Ind.) and Kerry (D-Mass) have warned that amendments to the treaty itself-whether to the nonbinding preamble or the binding portions-are unnecessary and would effectively require the renegotiation of the treaty, effectively killing the prospects for verifiably limiting Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

The McCain-Barrasso amendment is pure missile defense demagoguery. As Gen. Larry Welch, Gen. John Chain, Gen. Lee Butler, Adm. Henry Chiles, Gen. Eugene Habiger, Adm. James Ellis, and Gen. Bennie Davis—all of whom are former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces—said in a July 14, 2010, letter to the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees:

“The treaty preamble notes the interrelationship between offense and defense; this is a simple and long-accepted reality. The size of one side’s missile defenses can affect the strategic offensive forces of the other. But the treaty provides no meaningful constraint on U.S. missile defense plans.”

In speeches from the floor, backers of the McCain-Barrasso amendment have misrepresented the facts and realities surrounding missile defense. From the floor of the Senate Friday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) made the wild charge that the Obama administration “sold out” the plan to deploy 10 “proven” ground-based, two-stage missile interceptors in Poland by 2016 in order to placate Russia and secure the New START agreement with Russia.

That’s pure fantasy.

What Sessions doesn’t understand or hasn’t noticed is that the George W. Bush administration’s ground-based interceptor (GBI) system is neither proven, nor effective. Just this past week, a flight test of the interceptor failed to hit the target warhead. It has failed 8 out of 16 times. The GBI system isn’t a “bird in hand,” it was and is a turkey lost in the technological thicket.

Sessions also has completely overlooked the fact that the missile defense architecture endorsed by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates–the Phased Adaptive Approach, which relies on more numerous, more mobile SM-3 interceptors–is relatively more effective, more flexible, and more widely supported by U.S. allies.

In reality, President Obama’s cancellation of plans for deploying unproven, strategic missile interceptors in Poland in favor of a smarter, better proven system constitutes a shift in emphasis to regional, non-strategic systems, that is more responsive to present and near-term missile threats from Iran. Missile defense acolytes should be pleased.

In addition, while Russian civilian and military leaders remain concerned about potential future U.S. strategic interceptor capabilities, they do not feel threatened by U.S. theater missile defense systems based in Europe and they have been persuaded to cooperate with NATO and the United States on joint missile defenses to counter common missile threats from the like of Iran and North Korea. That’s a bonus, and something that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had proposed but had failed to achieve.

In his clumsy effort to suggest that the Obama administration is “spinning” the Senate on the issue, Sessions also mischaracterized a statement made by ACA Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann in a December 13 article in The Washington Post. Thielmann said “One of the great ironies is, he made sure there was no way to attack the treaty as being tough on missile defense. And yet that’s exactly one of the main rationales used by treaty critics.” Stephen Rademaker, a Bush administration arms-control official said in the same article that the Obama administration’s policy is “not that radically different from what most Republicans say they want on missile defense.”

“You see?” Sessions charged, “The President had a spin, and that spin was nothing in this treaty weakens missile defense, but the truth is it had already been weakened. They already canceled a decade-old policy of the United States to place missile defense system in Europe and backed off of it …”

Let’s get real Mr. Senator. You should know better.

What Thielmann actually has been saying for some time is that “It is ironic that critics of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) use missile defense as an excuse to oppose Senate approval. In reality, New START has cleared the path for missile defense.”

As Greg wrote in an oped in The Hill in November :

“The only missile defense constraint of any kind in New START is the prohibition on converting long-range missile launchers for use by missile defense interceptors. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, has testified to Congress that there are no plans to convert launchers, and that if any new missile defense launchers were needed, they could be more quickly and less expensively acquired through the construction of new missile silos. None of the critics have explained how this provision limits U.S. missile defense options in the real world.

Moreover, O’Reilly has explained that the treaty: “…actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program [that were present in the 1991 START agreement],” such as prohibiting the launch of missile defense target vehicles from airborne and waterborne platforms.

Greg also noted that:

“Some missile defense advocates also complain about New START’s preambular language recognizing the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms. Yet including this simple truism in the preamble did not lead to any numerical or qualitative limits on missile defenses in the treaty itself. Moreover, the preamble also notes that “current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties” – a Russian acknowledgment that the 30 U.S. strategic ballistic missile interceptors currently deployed do not threaten Moscow’s strategic nuclear retaliatory capability.

The United States has made clear that the treaty would not prevent it from improving and deploying missile defense system. Furthermore, the SFRC resolution of advice and consent clearly states that it is the committee’s understanding that “the New START Treaty does not impose any limitations on the deployment of missile defenses” other than the treaty’s ban on converting ICBM and SLBM launchers for use by interceptors–which the Pentagon has said it has no intention of doing in any case–and that any further limitations would require Senate approval.

The resolution clarifies that “the April 7, 2010, unilateral statement by the Russian Federation on missile defense does not impose a legal obligation on the United States.” It also reaffirms language in the 1999 Missile Defense Act that it is the policy of the United States to deploy an effective national missile defense system “as soon as technologically possible” and that nothing in the treaty limits future planned enhancements to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system or the European Phased Adaptive Approach.

As Greg wrote in The Hill:

‘That the critics’ arguments are so contrary to the facts cries out for explanation. Most of these critics probably know full well that New START protects rather than jeopardizes U.S. missile defense options during the next decade. However, since missile defense programs are popular in Congress, rallying to their defense is a convenient subterfuge. Spurious charges of imaginary secret understandings between U.S. and Russian negotiators to curb missile defenses are handy excuses for delaying the Senate vote. Ideological opponents of arms control hope that likely Senate approval may be derailed by letting the vote slide into the 112th Congress or by provoking a negative Russian reaction.’

“The critics’ distortion of New START as hostile to missile defense only raises suspicions that they fear an honest debate on the merits of the treaty.”

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